Keep Calm and Test a Protocol: Improving Humanitarian Response

Do you know the old joke about the rushed cellist who flags down a taxi and asks how to get to Carnegie Hall? Rather than “take a right and walk two blocks,” he was told to “Practice, practice, practice!”

That’s exactly what we did two weeks ago in Schwarzenburg, Switzerland. Approximately 70 humanitarian aid workers gathered to test the Transformative Agenda (TA) protocols, including the most recent addition, a draft annex document called the Humanitarian Programme Cycle Reference Module. If you are picturing a room with a bunch of round tables, flipcharts, aid workers hunched over laptops – you’re right.  Except that this sleepy Swiss hamlet was magically transformed into Klanndestan – a fictional, small, landlocked country in central Asia which had just been struck by a monstrous 7.9 magnitude earthquake. 

It started with an email: confirmed earthquake, few details. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee's Emergency Directors Group (EDG) of NGO and United Nations agency representatives met and determined that the “emergency” merited consideration by the IASC Principals. The principals agreed that the emergency warranted a Level 3 declaration (L3), with reservations – questions around the actual impact on people since as the earthquake appeared to take place in a remote area. They questioned too the reality of declaring an L3 for such a situation given the Syria challenges and the fact that Mali was never declared an L3. When the L3 was declared, the true scope of the emergency was unknown. Despite these concerns, the principals agreed to deploy the full complement of Inter-Agency Rapid Response Mechanism (IARRM), which included an NGO Coordinator. We then arrived in Klanndestan.

Time is the one thing every actor is short on in the first few days of an emergency. When it comes to coordination and participation in the humanitarian architecture you have to choose – delegate, participate, escalate. As the “response” kicked off and the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT)/cluster/NGO coordination took shape, decisions had to made. How do we as NGOs represent ourselves within the HCT? How should/could NGOs utilize the fledgling coordination body? What’s the best strategy to get our issues on the agenda of the HCT? If the HCT isn’t making decisions, what can we do to make sure that it does?

We had more questions than answers, but a few things were clear. One was that, as a humanitarian community, we needed to make serious time for an inter-agency process to work and commit to it. This includes taking the time to give critical feedback on emergent policy documents, protocols, guidance and make the time to educate ourselves on the protocols. If we want the system to work for us, then we have to mold it to fit our needs, decide what the critical conversations are and have them.  

Something that we all observed was that when time got short many of us reverted to our agency interests, out of habit. The TA protocols, in part because they haven’t been officially rolled out yet, are not a habit. In fact, as the days progressed, part of me wondered if maybe there was an even deeper issue of not being clear on what the TA is intended to achieve, much less how  to achieve it. It seemed like there was a knowledge gap. And maybe a leap of faith gap – a lack of willingness to try out these processes that could empower all of us, NGOs and UN alike, to better contribute to a strengthened, more effective humanitarian architecture. A more effective architecture should get us to a more accountable response, which is in every agency’s interest. 

I was also struck by the importance of relationships. How do we advance productive global inter-agency relationships at a more operational level? Within the simulation we largely didn’t know each other and we spent a lot of time explaining ourselves, our agencies etc. But once we had a couple days to work together, the sparks began to fly (in a good way!) and we had critical, constructive, engaged conversations about how to revise, adapt and adjust the protocols and make them fit our needs better, as a community. It became clear to me that we need more inter-agency collaboration; not only at senior levels within the humanitarian policy community but also within senior and middle management at operational levels. In crisis-prone countries field relationships are more established – how can we make relationships work better in rapid onset crises? The lead authors of the TA protocols, the IASC Working Group, have demonstrated a genuinely collaborative inter-agency process. How do we know ensure this coordinated approach translates to the field, when the pressure is on? 

Perhaps the answer is, as the taxi driver said, “Practice, practice, practice!”  Keep refining the process, developing tools and rigorously reviewing them, until we get it right. With more practice, we will all develop new and better habits – habits that add up to a more effective and accountable humanitarian response for communities devastated by crisis.

Caroline Nichols is InterAction's senior manager for humanitarian policy.